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Maybe you remember those infomercials from 15 years back: Someone straps a belt around their waist and voilà — they have six-pack abs, all while catching up on ER.

While peeps were rightfully skeptical about those things (and the “FREE MYSTERY GIFT!” they came with), Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS) technology has come a long way since its cheesy advert days.

Enter: PowerDot. Acquired last year by Therabody (of the Theragun massage gun), the company claims the EMS device will boost muscle performance, relieve pain, and aid in muscle recovery. Previously used primarily by pro athletes and health professionals, Therabody aims to bring wearable tech to the masses.

Far from billing itself as the miracle strap that’ll get you jacked, the medical-grade device has traditionally been used to help athletes soothe sore muscles or to help prevent injured patients’ muscles from atrophying. By firing off electrical impulses, the device causes targeted areas to activate or contract, potentially healing and strengthening the muscles.

But does the Smart Muscle Stimulator really live up to Therabody’s claims? Here’s the deal.

Pros

  • NMES and TENS in one. Unlike many other units, PowerDot combines both transcutaneous electrical stimulation (TENS) and neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES, also sometimes called EMS) tech in one convenient device.
  • May boost muscle strength and recovery. According to some research, EMS devices like PowerDot may boost muscular strength, aid in recovery, and may prevent muscular atrophy.
  • May relieve pain. Limited research shows that TENS devices like PowerDot may relieve pain in those with fibromyalgia in particular.
  • User-friendly. Reviewers love the intuitive ease and usability of PowerDot compared to competitors.
  • App-equipped. If you love tracking every aspect of your health and wellness on your smartphone, the PowerDot app will let you do just that.

Cons

  • Costs more than other models. There are more bare-bones options out there at a fraction of the price. It’s also not currently covered by insurance, FSA, or HSA (and some competitors are).
  • Frequent replacement pads required. Reviewers *hate* the frequent replacement pads. Pads cost $18 a set and will need to be replaced every 25–30 uses. The device comes with just 2 sets.
  • Potential health concerns. Don’t use it without getting medical attention first if you have a pacemaker, you’re pregnant, there’s a chance you might become pregnant, or if you have epilepsy or a heart issue.

PowerDot is a device that works via an electrical current to stimulate or contract your muscles. Though that might sound intense, it’s nothing like shock therapy from your “Stranger Things” nightmares. At most, you’ll feel a pins and needles kind of feeling.

By attaching magnetic cables to the electrode pads and attaching those pads to the area of your body you want to heal, strengthen, or reduce pain, the stimulation begins. You operate the whole shebang via your smartphone.

Cost

PowerDot pricing starts at $199 for the single device package. Replacement electropads cost $18 a set every 25 to 30 uses.

PowerDot isn’t currently covered by insurance or eligible for flexible spending account or health saving account use. Lots of other comparable units are FSA and HSA eligible though, so that could change in the future.

Main features

  • Stimulation channels. PowerDot Uno comes with one stimulation channel (the Duo comes with two) with independent output control.
  • App and features. PowerDot works via a smartphone app with several pre-programmed settings like active recovery, massage, and warm-up. The app is in-depth and customizable, with message boards, use tracking, and social media integration.
  • Voltage technology. PowerDot can generate outputs of up to 135 V at frequencies of up to 120 Hz. According to the company, that’s within about 10 percent range of other EMS devices on the market, and 95 percent of users never use it at more than 60 percent max.
  • Battery life. PowerDot uses a 210 mA Li-Ion battery, which should last for at least 6 hours of continuous stimulation. One charge of about 90 mins should cover you for the day.
  • FDA cleared. It’s a cleared EMS device with the FDA.

What does it come with?

Everything you need to fire up your Powerdot is in the kit, aside from a smartphone. The package includes:

  • 1 PowerDot device (or 2 if you bought a Duo). This is the base for the unit. It’s Bluetooth-enabled and must be paired with the PowerDot smartphone app on your phone.
  • 2 sets of electrode pads. These adhesive pads stick to your skin and get those electric currents firing. They’re only good for about 25–30 uses before they stop adhering, though, so you’ll have to plan on buying more. You also have to store them on a sheet in a plastic bag to keep them as sticky as possible in the meantime.
  • 2x 10-cm lead cables and 2x 25-cm lead cables. These magnetic cables connect the pads to the PowerDot units.
  • Carry case. It comes with a sturdy hard case that fits everything inside, ideal for travel.
  • Micro USB charging cable (or 2 for Duo). PowerDot uses a Li-Ion battery, which can last up to 6 hours of continuous electrical stimulation. Charging shouldn’t take longer than 90 mins.
  • Printed instruction manual. Because not *everything* is on your smartphone these days. You can also get copies translated into other languages on the site.

Unlike other EMS devices, you need to pair it with a smartphone for PowerDot to function. You’ll need an iPhone 5 or later (with iOs 7.0+) or supported Android phones running an Android 4.4+.

Once you’ve downloaded the PowerDot app to your smartphone, it will pair with your base (or multiple bases if you bought a Duo). This should only take a couple of mins.

The app is where you’ll control the device’s intensity settings. While most TENS machines have about 20 to 25 levels, the PowerDot has 100 intensity settings for highly customizable relief.

Programs

You need to use the app to operate the device, but it does a lot more than control it. It has various tools and features to help you integrate PowerDot into your workout, recovery, or pain relief regimen. The menu has a bunch of preset programs that you can choose from with different goals.

  • Wellness. These are gentle massages that target specific muscles/areas of your body.
  • Period Pain Relief. These target your abdomen and lower back for menstrual pain relief.
  • Everyday workouts. These include warmups, different recovery options — like active recovery, extended recovery, and light recovery, massage, and long-haul flight (designed to promote circulation in your calves and upper back during long flights).
  • Performance. These workouts are designed to strengthen your muscles. There are a lot of diff options — like strength endurance, muscle endurance, resistance, explosive strength, and strength — and the difference between them isn’t crystal clear. The app gives brief descriptions on the difference, but it’s not easy to tell how your results will differ from one program to another.

You can also choose one of the “smart” options — either “Smart Pain Relief” or “Smart Recovery.” These build a workout based on a few questions you’ll answer about pain severity/type or sport/intensity. Each smart workout you create will save for you to use again later.

If all of this sounds like too much, you can click the “Focus on” option. Here, you’ll start by picking a body part. The app will then bring you to a screen to pick between one of the pre-programmed workouts.

App features

The app records your stimulation sessions so you can track your progress and review your history.

There’s also a section that monitors your device’s performance, battery life, and the number of times you’ve used the electropads. The app will notify you when it’s time to order new pads.

There are also a bunch of rotating in-app articles sponsored by PowerDot that revolve around wellness and fitness, from stretching to pain relief to hydration. These pop up automatically during your sessions — ya know, in case you’re bored and need something to read.

From your profile page, you can manage app interactions, engage with the PowerDot community (via PowerDot community forums), or set up notifications. In true social media era fashion, you can also post your stimulation sessions to Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and YouTube.

PowerDot has a 30-day return policy and a limited 1-year warranty.

You can only return the PowerDot if you buy it directly from the company, so keep this in mind. If you buy from another retailer, check their return policies.

To get a refund, you have to request a Return Merchandise Authorization (RMA) number from the company within 15 days after receiving the product.

The limited warranty doesn’t include normal wear and tear of electrode pads, and all the usual suspects: no accidents, misuse, neglect, external forces, etc.

As of now, the company has an F on Better Business Bureau (BBB) with 1.06 stars out of 5 for 68 reviews (yikes). However, this is for the Theragun device. PowerDot isn’t on there yet.

If the many unresolved consumer complaints on Therabody’s Theragun are any indication, though, it could likewise be a struggle to get your PowerDot issues resolved. Many reviewers complained of defective products and an unresponsive company.

The company also isn’t BBB accredited. (Though TBF, it costs for this accreditation and BBB is a for-profit company.)

We took the PowerDot for a whirl to figure out the best way to use it. Here’s the easiest way to do it:

Getting started

Step 1: Download that app, bb. The first time you open it, you’ll be prompted to make an account and confirm that you don’t have any medical conditions that require doctor approval before using the machine. You’ll also have to confirm that you won’t use it while driving, cycling, operating machinery, or sleeping.

Step 2: Connect your PowerDot(s). Turn on the device(s), enable Bluetooth on your smartphone, and follow the prompts on the app. You’ll need to connect each device separately if you have the Duo.

Using PowerDot

Step 1: Select your program. (Not sure where to start? Try the “Focus on” option to browse workouts by body part. Whether you’re in the mood for a low back massage or a glute activation, the “Focus on” tab will get you there.)

Step 2: Once you’ve picked your program type and the body part you want to focus on, you’ll be brought to a screen with a picture of how your electropads should be placed. Now’s the time to stick those babies on your bod. (We recommend putting the sticky pads on before connecting any wires. It’s waaay easier.)

Step 3: Make sure your cables are plugged into the PowerDot device and attach the magnetic end to the electropads on your body.

Step 4: Check out the “tips” tab. PowerDot will recommend whether you should sit or lie down based on the body part you’re using. Once you know, get into position.

Step 5: Turn the device on and start the workout. You’ll need to adjust the intensity yourself at first to a level you’re comfortable with. (You can adjust this throughout your sesh. You can also pause or exit if you need to.)

Go ahead and watch TV, read a mag or get some work done while it fires.

For relaxation and recovery, the company recommends using the device for 20 to 35 mins at a time on your most fatigued muscle groups. For performance training, Therabody recommends using it several times a week per muscle group for about 30 mins at a time, or for session times totaling up to 60+ mins.

Before they became all the rage for abs of steel, EMS devices were used in medical settings in the ‘60s to help prevent muscle atrophy in patients with nerve injuries. It was also commonly used in later years to strengthen limbs of patients who underwent orthopedic surgery.

But reviewers of EMS and TENS devices like PowerDot seem split into two camps: either it works amazingly, or it doesn’t do sh*t. So, what’s the deal?

What the research says

On muscle mass. In a 2018 review of several studies, researchers concluded that EMS seems to increase muscle mass and could limit or reverse the muscle atrophying process. They note that it should not be used as a replacement for regular exercise, however.

A 2021 review of several studies on whole-body stimulation concluded that the most significant muscular gains occurred in nonathletic peeps. So, if you already work out on the reg, you might not see much of a diff in terms of muscle strength or mass with EMS.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, EMS devices like PowerDot may be able to temporarily strengthen, tone, or firm muscles. However, they’re not cleared for things like weight loss, waist-trimming, or as the FDA puts it, getting “rock hard” abs.

On pain relief. In a 2019 review, researchers found that TENS therapy helped reduce pain in people with fibromyalgia and a 2022 review found that TENS therapy can be an effective treatment for menstrual pain in people with painful periods. But in a 2014 review of several studies, researchers noted that people may gain a tolerance to TENS over time and stop getting the same pain-relieving benefits.

On muscle recovery. TBH, the research on whether EMS-type devices really work for muscle recovery just isn’t there yet. There’s some evidence from a small 2016 study to suggest its effectiveness, though, specifically when it comes to muscle flexibility.

On heart health and mental health. A small 2018 study concluded that whole-body EMS may help alleviate anxiety, poor sleep, and fatigue as well as improve heart health. Keep in mind that this was full-bod stimulation, not the targeted stimulation that devices like PowerDot offer.

On breathing. In a 2016 review of 14 studies, researchers found that people with spinal cord injuries had better respiratory function after electrical stimulation therapy. Although people don’t often discuss the benefits of EMS for breathing easier, there just might be something there.

Our Market Editor, Ruby Thompson, gave the PowerDot a whirl. Here’s her review.

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Photo courtesy of Ruby Thompson

I’ve been using an at-home TENS machine for about 4 years and an at-home EMS machine for about 2 years.

My physical therapist recommended the TENS machine for back pain related to a slight curve in my spine (aka scoliosis). I got it for free through my insurance and have gotten a ton of use out of it.

I bought the EMS unit on my own in hopes of better activating my glutes before workouts. I didn’t see great results, so it’s currently gathering dust in my closet. 🙁

So while I’m not a TENS/EMS pro by any means, I do have a lot of experience with other (much cheaper) options. Here’s what I love about PowerDot that I hate about other machines:

  • The unit is compact. Unlike other TENS/EMS machines, the device itself is super small (like a little “dot”) and you attach it to your body. That means you can move freely while using it without getting tangled in wires. Most TENS/EMS machines have larger devices with longer wires, so you’re either trapped in one place or getting frustrated by dangling wires while using it.
  • PowerDot shows you where to place electropads based on the body part you want to work on. I was hopelessly Googling where to place pads for my other units (and that info is pretty hard to find, TBH).
  • PowerDot programs are badass. Rather than just sticking on the pads and turning on the machine, the device goes through different pulses and movements based on the program. I have no idea if that does anything (and neither does science), but it’s satisfying as hell.
  • PowerDot is TENS and EMS in one. Ya, I have both machines at home — but I honestly have no idea if I’m using them correctly. It brings me huge peace of mind that PowerDot chooses whether to apply TENS or EMS (or both) based on the program you choose.

But nobody’s perfect. Here’s what I don’t like:

  • She’s pricey. It’s $199 for the Uno and $349 for the Duo. That’s a heck of a lot more than the $0 I paid using my insurance for the TENS unit and the ~$40 I paid for the EMS unit on Amazon.
  • Picking a strength program. I love the programs, but choosing between the strength options isn’t easy because it’s not totally clear how your results will differ from one to the other.
  • The pads lose stickiness quickly. While they start off super sticky (which I loved), they lost most of their stick by my 10th use, which is a major bummer.

Our verdict? This thing is amazing — especially if you’re new to TENS/EMS and willing to spend a buck for a more customized experience.

You can totally find the same pain relief/muscle activation in regular ol’ TENS/EMS units, but this device gives you the tools you need to use it without doing tons of research or getting specialized advice from a healthcare professional (though we *always* recommend chatting with a healthcare pro before using any TENS/EMS machine on your own).

Pricing guide

  • $ = under $50
  • $$ = over $50

Belifu Dual Channel TENS EMS Unit

Price: $

The Belifu might be the best budget TENS + EMS combo unit on the market.

It has 16 preset modes (6 more than PowerDot) and 20 intensity levels (80 less than PowerDot). It also has several presets designed to stimulate therapeutic massage techniques like cupping and acupuncture.

You can connect up to six electro pads at the same time, compared to just two max with the PowerDot (or four with the Duo). Its power output is less intense than the PowerDot, but reviewers insist it works. (This may be because the majority of users aren’t operating the PowerDot at max capacity, anyway)

It has a rechargeable battery that lasts up to 20 hours. No frills or smartphone integration here, though.

iReliev iRenew TENS + EMS Combination Unit

Price: $$

Like PowerDot, iReliev combines TENS and EMS in one convenient unit — and for a much more affordable price.

It’s def more bare-bones than PowerDot, with fewer customization options and no smartphone integration.

Even though it has a pretty simple setup, many reviewers rave that it works as well as the machines used in physical therapy treatment.

Keep in mind that it’s battery-operated. If old school batteries aren’t your thing, you can upgrade to the iRenew Plus for a little extra cash, which has a rechargeable battery.

Is PowerDot worth the money?

Depends on who you ask! If you’re not into fancy apps or replacement pads, many point out the comparable, no-frills machines out there for about a fourth to a fifth of the price. Others also claim that if you’re looking for muscle relief and recovery, a foam roller will get the job done.

If smartphone integration and additional app features are a must for you, it might be worth it.

Is PowerDot a TENS unit?

PowerDot is a transcutaneous electrical stimulation (TENS) unit and electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) unit in one.

TENS technology works to relieve pain by inducing a mild electrical current in the target area. EMS, meanwhile, works by stimulating motor nerves, causing muscles to contract (rather than impacting pain signals).

Depending on your goals, PowerDot can do either or both.

What’s better: Compex or PowerDot?

Compex has dozens of EMS, TENS, and combo options on the market. Both companies sell FDA-cleared and wireless devices. Many reviewers complain that Compex devices are tricky to set up and use, however. Most of them are also significantly more expensive (over $1,000), for what’s essentially the same technology.

You don’t need a smartphone to use Compex devices (they come with their own digital unit), so in case you’re the type whose phone always dies (or hey, maybe you’re a flip phone kinda person), you might want to go with Compex.

If you’d prefer a smartphone app, go with the PowerDot.

Does PowerDot build muscle?

Though the company claims the PowerDot can build muscle, the jury (aka the researchers and reviewers) is still out on this. Some research from 2018 suggests that EMS devices like PowerDot can lead to moderate muscle strengthening.

Researchers noted that it shouldn’t replace traditional exercise, tho.

PowerDot is an EMS + TENS unit that may aid in muscular pain relief, recovery, and strength. Compared to many competitors, it offers the advantage of smartphone integration and an intuitive, highly customizable app.

It’s definitely pricey and replacing the electropads is annoying, but we love this machine — and so do reviewers.